31 December 2008

Back To Thinking Hard In 2009

"After watching the umpteenth white guy on the tube tell me
what black people were thinking, I had to go direct."

This phrase, contained in the very first post on this blog, summed up the sentiment that led me to joining the blog world. It was this sense of frustration with the limited points of view defining the perspective of the major media outlets that had me furiously emailing my friends and family a year ago, just so they could have enough real information in front of them to really think for themselves about what was going on, instead of relying on news readers and talking heads to tell them the truth.

They called me anyway, though, to ask my opinion.

And over the months that followed, this site slowly changed from a information disseminator into an opinion column, partly because we started running out of weekly primaries and partly because I was getting to like telling people how I saw things. I have become the enemy, it seems - seduced, like a lot of the nation's pundits are, by the idea that what I write is important to an audience.

I talked to a buddy of mine, who is originally from Alabama, earlier this week. "You've gotten a lot better at your blog lately," he said, his voice pausing for a second, "a lot better than you used to be."

There have been a lot of days, especially since the election, when I felt the "brown man thinking hard" title of this blog was misleading. I figured it should have been retitled "brown man living hard", or "brown man running Congress out of town", or "brown man exasperated as hell", or "brown man watching too much football lately."

And I remember quite a few days where the "brown" in "brown man thinking hard" could have been dropped completely as I adopted the role of an Everyman observer who championed the universal human condition.

Even though these things are true, I still like the name of this place. If you live in the town where a certain soft drink giant tried to change the name "Coke" to "New Coke", like I do, you are keenly aware of the need to leave a good thing alone when it seems to be working.

2009 is going to be fantastic. A certain brown skinned man on a Hawaiian Christmas vacation will be moving into the White House. Brown skinned people all over this country will still be holding their heads high. Many of us will understand, for the first time in our lives, why we have got to stop patting ourselves on the back about integration and start initiating collaboration.

And the Brown Man himself will be back to thinking hard.


30 December 2008

Bush Needs To Blow The Whistle On Israel And Palestine

In the NFL, if the defensive team commits a penalty after they've crouched into their stances at the line of scrimmage, and the officials throw the penalty flag but do not blow the whistle, this is known as a “free play”. The quarterback of the team on offense can take a greater than normal risk with the football in executing a play, secure in the knowledge that any error can be reversed simply by accepting the penalty once the play is blown dead.

Because I’m not an expert on Middle East conflict, I can apply this particular football analogy to the fighting between the Israelis and the Palestinians without any hesitation. The kind of myopia I have regarding our foreign policy removes any effect that in-depth knowledge of the history between Israel and Palestine could have on how I see things.

The United States government is in that peculiar zone of inaction that comes between the end of one presidential term and the beginning of the next. To my diplomatically untrained mind, this period seems very similar to the moments that exist from the time the football official throws the flag on a “free play” and the time he blows the whistle.

It just strikes me that this deadly exchange between these neighboring countries in an area of the world where our country seems to spend an inordinate amount of our attention, energy, and resources could not have come at a better time if they were looking to put the U.S. on the spot.

President Bush is busy packing. President-Elect Obama is strolling on the beach, or hacking up a golf course somewhere in Hawaii. Congressmen and Congresswomen are filling their trash cans with discarded wrapping paper and standing in line in stores to return things like the rest of the country. It is the press who have thrown the metaphorical penalty flag on this battle, but our nation's leadership does not seem to be in a position to blow the whistle just yet.

In a football contest, one of the things the officials are charged with is keeping control of the game. One of the ways they do this is by assessing penalties on egregious behavior, especially the little skirmishes that develop between linemen who have been ramming into each other all day.

Too many unchecked skirmishes lead to bench clearing brawls, where entire teams can end up fighting each other over a conflict that originally involved two individual players.

I would hope, in this age of communication devices so powerful that they can almost predict when you need to contact someone, that the people milling around President Bush can somehow contact the people milling around President-Elect Obama and figure out whatever it is they need to figure out between them so that President Bush can haul his whistle out.

Because a world-wide, bench clearing brawl is the last thing we need right now.

29 December 2008

Starting The New Year On A High Note

I got a guitar for Christmas. A few cigars and bottle of cologne would have been fine, but I will have to admit I was pretty surprised.

Three days later I have acquired a matched set of sore fingertips, attained a certain level of appreciation for the art of tuning a stringed instrument, and discovered a complete inability to contort the fingers of my left hand into any chord position other than the G Major.

Maybe, I mused while cracking my fingers yesterday before giving it another try, this was really a gift that had more metaphorical intent. Maybe it was like that symbolic broom people give each other to "sweep clean" before the new year. "Start the new year on a new note" might be the message. Or maybe it was a way to subtly suggest that I try to spend a little less time on the internet.

So I asked S. – “why a guitar?"

"Well," she said, "you seem pretty introspective – I just figured it would be something good for you to do. You did talk about getting one years ago, remember? And, if you get good enough, we can play together."

S. plays the piano. S. reads music. S. was on the band in high school.

Brown Man has done none of those things, and can often be found dancing at a tempo that is slightly off from the beat.

It is amazing, though, once I’ve gotten the thing tuned, to pluck the bottom string and hear the deep, rich "ooohhhmmm" reverberate through the whole body of the guitar. And I can now slide my sore index finger up and down the frets on the bottom string and the top string quick enough to establish a kind of rhythm with a constant tempo.

In the same vein, I hope the fine-tuning this blog has gone through over the last couple of weeks will allow my posts to have a deeper resonance with my regular readers and the larger community in the coming year.

So take these last few days of 2008 to call up the memories of those events and accomplishments that have resounded positively in your life over the last twelve months. Let your mind run up and down these recent high points the way I let my fingers crawl up and down the neck of my guitar, and you might just begin a cadence that will take you into 2009 on a high note.

24 December 2008

A Back To Basics Christmas

Frankincense and Myrrh

Last Saturday night, I stood in the cavernous kitchen of a million dollar home, in a room ringed with a crowd of some of Atlanta’s hardest working brown-skinned suburban citizens, listening along with everybody else as the hostess intoned during her pre-meal prayer that “we don’t know whether we will even be here a year from now”, a blanket statement that could have referred not only to her life, but the lives of everyone of us standing in that room.

It looks like the whole country, from top to bottom, will be facing some very trying times in the months ahead.

In this end of the year extravaganza we know as the Christmas/New Year’s holiday season, even in normal times, there is an awful lot of personal reflection that goes along with the turkey and the gift wrap and the eggnog. This year, it seems that many of us have gone beyond this usual level of introspection to do some actual soul searching as we reevaluate who and why we are in the face of the financial calamity the entire nation is facing.

“Somber” is probably the most accurate description of the general malaise that seems to be hovering over everything this week. This year I am sensing, as we spend less in the stores, that we are trying harder to reach out to connect with the people in our lives. In the gatherings I’ve attended so far, there is a heightened poignancy that envelopes the exchanges between us.

This is the kind of year where nobody cares if Santa is black or white or Jewish or Arabic or Indian – right now, I would imagine that all of us who have been playing at Santa for the last ten or twenty or thirty years wishes that the guy from the North Pole we used to believe in would come back, just this once, to bring a little joy and magic back to this most sacred of holidays.

A lot of us would just like to be able to forget, for a little while, the balancing act that we will be performing to make sure that the holiday cheer we are trying to enjoy over the next few days doesn’t have too big an impact on our survival during the next few months.

So if you are at home right now, trying to figure out what to do with all that extra time you have on your hands this year, since you have a lot less gifts to wrap, take it back to the basics of the Christmas season - call a few people up. If they’re not doing anything, invite them over. Or invite yourself over to their place. Put on some music, preferably something you grew up with, that evokes the times when you did believe there was a Santa Claus, or at least were able to rest comfortably in the knowledge that the people who were playing Santa could handle all of the details.

Remember the mission those three wise men were on. Revel in the fact that you are here, alive and kicking, just like that newborn was that they trekked to see and honor. Celebrate your relationships, even those that have frayed, or seem to be on their last legs. Rejoice in the ability you have to experience human intimacy. Take pride in those things you have accomplished this year, no matter how few and far between they may have occurred.

For tonight, give the soul searching a break, and let these things kindle the warmth and the spirit that still resides deep down inside you.

Have a joyous Christmas Eve, and a Merry Christmas!

23 December 2008

Rick Warren Invocation Doesn't "Speak Volumes" To Me

I’m tired of reading the phrase "______ speaks volumes."

I’m weary, by the time I finish reading the paper these days, of the phrase "_______ sends a message", or "_______ sends a clear signal."

Barack Obama’s choice of Rev. Rick Warren to say a five minute prayer before Obama is sworn in as the next president of the United States doesn’t send me a message, Morse code, or smoke signals.

Picking Rick Warren to give the inaugural convocation didn’t “send me a message” because I really don’t know who Rick Warren is.

I know his name, because he has been mentioned on the news a lot. Off the top of my head, I can state with certainty that he is an overly jolly looking white guy, he preaches and probably collects lots of money at a church called Saddleback, and he interviewed Barack Obama and John McCain about religion, interviews that I did not watch, either live or on Youtube.

When I ran this by S., she said “he’s the guy who wrote that book The Purpose Driven Life – the one that was a best seller.”

My eyes shifted upward for a second.

“You know,” I said, “I don’t think any of the guys I know have read that one.”

The "guys I know" are the kind of guys who boil things down to the basics. When they look at a car, they see through body to the motor. When they look at a house, they see through the stucco and the trim to the joists and the foundation. When they look at a woman – well, let’s just say I wouldn’t waste time asking them what color her blouse was.

These guys are most of America, the kind of people who are not overly concerned with anything unless it affects them directly. They let the common sense they’ve developed over the years, like most Americans do, dictate what is an important issue to them.

Our friends who make up the media, by contrast, are in the advertising selling business, so the easiest way to get your attention is to throw common sense out of the window and push an innocuous idea like Rev. Warren giving a prayer to the most extreme conclusion possible.

I can guarantee you right now that Rev Warren’s prayer will not be the most important thing that happens the week of January 20th. It won’t even make the it into the list of Top Ten news items. What has happened, though, since Obama has put this outspoken opponent of gay rights on the national hot seat, is a moderation by Warren of his stated positions on the gay and lesbian lifestyle.

Gay and lesbian rights are not an issue that keeps me up at night, but for those to whom they do matter, I would hope they could get beyond their emotional reactions long enough to see how putting the spotlight on Warren will push him closer to the center philosophically than the next ten protest marches. We cannot continue to stay in our own corners, whether we're black or gay or devoutly religious or anti-war, duking it out with all who oppose us, if we hope to achieve any different results than we've already gotten.

But back to this idea that the populace is able to rely on their common sense to guide them past make-believe issues that are just time wasters. I would speculate that Barack Obama has the same kind of common sense my buddies have. He knows, like they do, the difference between the thing people see on the outside and what is really on the inside of an action he takes, especially something like this invocation, which can't take more than five minutes tops.

I'm sure the selection of black civil rights icon Rev. Joesph Lowery to give the benediction at the inauguration is going to offend somebody too.

Right now, it's those future breadlines, not these Rick Warren headlines, that we need Obama to be worrying about.

20 December 2008

Brown Man Thinking Hard Gets Early Xmas Present

I feel like a kid on Christmas morning with this new site. It's really the same old site that's been rebuilt from the bottom up (with the help of a great template). I'm still getting all the pieces together, so it will be awhile before I figure out how to operate all the slick features I saw in the demo.

This new design is supposed to load itself to your browser a lot quicker than the old one. Since I'm the chief cook, bottle washer and webmaster around here, shoot me an email if you find that something isn't working the way it should.

Thank you and Merry Christmas to all the visitors to Brown Man Thinking Hard who take the time to read what I have to say.

If the Christmas party we're attending tonight doesn't get too festive, I'll be back on the job tomorrow with some fresh commentary

Brown Man

19 December 2008

Is Henry Paulson The Next Bernie Madoff?

Palm Beach pawnshop

It seemed like everybody in Palm Beach over the age of sixty was on the evening news this week. If you’re like most Americans, I’m sure you felt a little smug as you watched these shell shocked people stand in front of their million dollar homes and tell the world that they had invested their life savings with Bernie Madoff. This resentment of the rich lingers deep inside our collective psyche, a mean-spirited reaction to the misfortunes of the affluent that is out of step with our nation’s official “grow rich and prosper” credo.

Its times like these when a lot of Americans revel in their ordinariness, in their stripped down lifestyles, in their modest homes and apartments. Many watch these elderly, formerly well-to-do people confess total ignorance of Madoff’s deception and feel a certain sense of superiority because they don’t need to have three tuxedos, or eat $300 dinners, or drive an expensive luxury car. In times like these, there is a renewed sense of devotion to frugal living, as if decency, honesty and humble circumstances are an indivisible trio.

Ordinary Americans shouldn’t start patting themselves on the back just yet, though.

Right now, the only difference I’m seeing between your faithful Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and confessed swindler Bernie Madoff is the size of their playground. And in the wake of the Madoff scandal, where he has simply stolen the largest amount of cash ever from the investors who put money into his investment fund, we the American people continue to rely on the assurances of Henry Paulson that we need to simply quit worrying about how much of our money he has handed away, or who he has handed it to, because he knows what he’s doing.


The offices where Madoff cooked his books so well he could be a contestant on Iron Chef were locked tighter than…well, almost as tight as the books at the U.S. Treasury. At least Madoff gave the SEC complete reports with all the blanks filled in, even if the the numbers themselves were made up. Your humble Treasury Secretary Mr. Paulson, on the other hand, has a penchant for submitting documents to the bailout oversight committee with the names of the banks and the amounts they got blacked out. Even Madoff knew that you had to show the people something if you wanted them to believe you.

Which is why, if you’ve done a bit of private gloating about the misfortunes that have befallen the ostentatiously wealthy, you might want to think about the situation we are all in a little more carefully. In a normal economy, we’ve pretty much established that there are the “have’s” and the “have nots”. A bad economy changes those labels to the “have less” and the “have nothing’s”.

The gray-haired people in those news reports can sell their real property, even at fire sale prices, and move from a million dollar home to a modest older home or an inexpensive condo. They are likely to draw the maximum in Social Security benefits, and you would be surprised at the number of them who receive pension checks or have small annuities they purchased back when they were all the rage in the eighties. There will be food in their refrigerators. They will be able to put gas in their cars.

But if you are an ordinary American, who is already struggling to make ends meet, who is already living in a modest home, or an apartment, where will you go if Henry Paulson turns out to be doing as bad a job as Bernie Madoff? What will be in your refrigerator? Will you be able to put gas in your car?

18 December 2008

No Degrees Of Separation

I grew up in a plant town.

The largest manufacturer back then was a lawnmower plant that made riding mowers for Sears. Over two thousand people worked there.

We had other plants – a division of Hughes Aircraft, a division of Ashland Chemical, a plant for Purina Dog Food, a subsidiary of General Electric, a manufacturing plant owned by Utica Tool, an assembly plant for Kirsch window treatments – but the lawnmower plant was the biggest.

A lot of these plants would shut down for a week during Thanksgiving, and sometimes for a week during Christmas, ostensibly to retool or do routine maintenance on the big machinery that they used twenty four hours a day seven days a week, but also partly because it was easier than trying to work through a high absentee rate.

Couple that with school closings, and you had a large part of the county roaming around town, running errands, getting haircuts, tuning up cars before they got on the road to visit relatives. The plant's employees looked forward to this week.

Whenever business was slow, the plant would use the break as a way to cut back production, adding a week or two to the layoff. Every once in awhile, there would be a four week layoff. This caused problems for their employees. One week off was a vacation. Two weeks off was hell, three weeks off was torture, and four weeks off was never ending, especially when their employees were used to being paid once a week.

The ones who already had side jobs or small businesses that they ran to supplement their income fared the best. By end of the second week of a four week layoff, you would see people out looking for some kind of work to do until the plant came back online. My own family’s small industrial uniform rental business suffered during these long layoffs at the lawn mower plant too – back then it was our company’s biggest customer.

During Thanksgiving and Christmas break when I was in high school and college, I often made deliveries to the plant during these layoffs. There were no uniforms to deliver, but the maintenance guys usually used thousands of shop towels cleaning and adjusting the hulking machines that the plant depended on to stamp out the main parts of a lawn mower.

The plant itself sat right off of a main traffic artery, close to a major interstate on-ramp. But with the layoff, I didn't have to watch out for the eighteen wheelers being hustled across the intersection so they didn’t have to come to a complete stop. No cars clumped around the two convenience stores at this junction of the main artery and the side road leading to the plant that seemed to have a crowd after every shift change.

It would really hit me when I passed in front of the plant itself. There were empty parking spaces all the way up to the main entrance, a five football field sized stretch of empty asphalt which looked forlorn without the contingent of well maintained cars and trucks that normally sat between the white lines.

The guard at the back gate was bored. The loading dock where I normally had to fight to get a space to park was wide open. I had to walk to another checkpoint to get in the plant at times like these, then walk all the way back through the backside of the plant to open a loading bay door so I could make my delivery.

Pushing the delivery carts that I’d brought through the plant to the tool bay was eerie – a massive building like this didn’t sound right when the machines weren’t running, didn’t look right when the forklifts were idle.

It was at times like this that I realized that the lawn mower plant wasn’t really our customer, it was our partner, a partner I wished would get back to the business of making lawn mowers so my parents could sleep at night and I could stay in school.

General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, for better or for worse, aren’t really just major American employers, they are major partners in our American way of life. You will be affected, whether you work at these plants or not, if these plants sit idle for an extended period of time.

You know those six degrees of separation you hear about, the idea that if you examine the people you know, and then take the people they know, repeating this cycle six times, your life will be “connected” to everyone else on the planet?

There will be no degrees of separation here in America between you and the people who work in the auto industry if our auto manufacturing plants remain idle.

17 December 2008

You Knew The Rules When You Got Into This

The narrative the mainstream media is pushing right now is that Caroline Kennedy has boxed in the governor of New York with her announcement that she wants to be considered for the New York Senate seat being vacated by Hillary Clinton. I don’t know if we fully understand as a country what New York has in having David Paterson as its governor. The media seems to have little regard for this blind, brown-skinned governor in its rush to anoint Ms. Kennedy before he announces his selection.

As the latest brouhaha over last weekend’s Saturday Night Live skit that poked fun at Paterson’s blindness shows, we don’t really know how far we can go with someone who has lost their sight. Or how much we should expect them to be capable of accomplishing. Instead, the airwaves are filled with a storyline that suggests the Senate seat is Kennedy's to take, rather than Paterson's to give.

I have watched the movie Ray about a hundred times. Even though Jamie Foxx’s physical features only broadly resemble those of the real Ray Charles, Foxx’s incomparable ability to imitate the legendary R & B singer’s sound, mannerisms and style hold me in a trance even now, after I have practically memorized the film’s every nuance.

Charles turned a handicap into an asset, using his disability as a tool to disarm his business partners, neutralize hostile band members, and charm the ladies – a whole lot of ladies - right out of their underwear.

I have to confess – when I saw newly sworn in David Paterson at his first real press conference, confessing to a series of sexual affairs with women in and out of government while his attractive wife stood beside him, I couldn’t help but think about the scene in Ray where the camera focused on the routine Ray Charles used to determine whether or not a prospective date was pretty.

I could hear the actor Bokeem Woodbine doing the voiceover of that scene in his role as saxophonist “Fathead” Newman loud and clear when I watched Paterson speak into the microphone: "Look at Ray. You see that? He feels her wrist 'cause he figures that's the way to tell if she's good-looking or not."

In the many, many times I watched this movie, I saw over and over again how an intelligent man turned his physical limitation into an advantage, allowing him to prey on unsuspecting foes and sympathetic adversaries when need be with a surprising level of ruthlessness, not only in his personal relationships, but in his business dealings.

Paterson is quick witted and wily, the son of a renowned politician, his tutelage straight from old school Harlem's black political elite, much the way Ray Charles learned the basics of music from an old-time stride style piano player. I would not underestimate Paterson's abilities for one minute.

So Caroline Kennedy needs to watch out – because if Paterson ever says “you knew the rules when you got into this”, she probably won’t be getting the news she wants to hear.

16 December 2008

When You've Got The Name And The Looks

The children of Martin Luther King Jr. have always said “Marty got daddy’s name, Dexter got daddy’s looks.”

Jessie Jackson Jr. got both.

I myself got two colorful monikers, one Arabic, one Hindu, preceding my English surname, two names as far away from my father's utilitarian "Fred" as you could get. I quickly boiled them down to "Kris" the way "Barack" boiled his name down to "Barry" for the exact same reason he did - to avoid being different from everybody else.

When I was younger, I used to ask my father "why I wasn’t a 'Junior'?"

"Because I didn’t want you to be burdened with it if I didn’t keep my name clear."

The things that men like Jesse Jackson Sr. and my father and other highly motivated black men across the South went through to get to college, then to go out into an America that was in such racial turmoil in the sixties and be somebody was a part of a crossroads in time.

Jesse Jackson Sr. protested against the goverment.

My father went to work for the government.

So when your father runs for the presidency of the United States of America, even if it is a symbolic campaign, you don’t have a burden to be carried, you have a bar to be raised.

Since I didn’t know much about the younger Jackson, I decided to see for myself just who was the man behind those flashing eyes and that hungry smile. It quickly turned into a bona fide internet research junket when I clicked on a link to his wife, Sandi.

The most striking thing about Jesse Jackson Jr. that jumped out at me after reading through several biographical accounts of his life is the sense that this is a young man in a hurry. “Hyperactive” is what they called him at the military school he attended when he and his brother Jonathan proved too much for their mother and their Chicago school to handle.

In Jesse Jackson Jr.'s short career, he has chomped at the bit to run for mayor of Chicago as well as the U.S. Senate. He bypassed local politics altogether at the beginning of his career, against the advice of his father, jumping right into his first congressional race when Congressman Mel Reynolds was caught soliciting a minor.

    He is still hyperactive.

    He only misses TWO floor votes in thirteen years in Congress, a feat in and of itself.

    He does his homework on the issues before he starts talking.

    He sponsors constitutional amendments instead of special interest bills.

    He knows the rules and the protocol of Congress inside and out.

    He opposes President Bush ideologically but maintains a personal relationship with him.

    He’s got three degrees – bachelor of science, master of divinity, law degree.

    He has co-written several books, and authored one about why he is who he is.

    But - he’s never had a job outside the family business, never been ordained, never taken the bar.

Jackson Jr. HAD to at least talk to Rudy Blagojevich. So did Obama's people. ANYONE who wanted a real shot at getting the Illinois Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama would have. Valerie Jarrett only escaped her own in person meeting or phone sessions because she probably wasn't a real candidate anyway.

But Jackson Jr.'s hyperactivity may have worked against him this time.

When he described Barack Obama at the Democratic Convention this summer, he said “he doesn't always tell people what they want to hear. He tells them what they need to hear."

So Jesse Jackson Jr., I'm not going to tell you what you want to hear, but what you need to hear.

    Slow all this apologizing down for something you say you didn’t do. WAY down.

    DO NOT concede your bid for the Senate right now – all the facts are not in yet.

    Figure out how to tone down that prickly, thin-skinned edge you exude a couple of notches.

    Estimate how much of the truth you think we can handle - and tell it before the other guy does.

You’ve got your father’s name. You’ve got more than a passing physical resemblance to him. Now, what we need to see is some of that famous Jesse Jackson Sr. charisma, some of that magnetic, plainspoken charm that used to allow us to see your father for more than he was.

Because in the end, that’s what a real leader is – someone who projects their greatness into our lives in a way that helps us believe a little more in ourselves, and trust a little more in you.

15 December 2008

I Might Have To Take My Shoes Off

My buddy calls me yesterday, during the game.

I don’t answer the phone.

He calls back later.

S. comes looking for me. “Can you call him back? That’s the second time he’s woken me up looking for you.”

I pretty much only talk to my parents and my brother on Sundays – years of working on the phone during the week have resulted in my designating Sunday as a day without talking on the phone unnecessarily.

I call my buddy back during a commercial. He is spitting fire as he tells me “somebody threw a shoe at the president.” My mind is elsewhere – the Atlanta Falcons had already won their game, and I was dozing off during the one-sided mismatch between the lackluster Denver Broncos and the highly motivated Carolina Panthers.

“What shoes?”

“Didn’t you hear about this? It’s got to be all over the news.”

‘Didn’t I tell you I was watching the game?”

My lack of interest in any details ratchets my buddy’s level of exasperation up. His impatience is literally dripping from his voice as he tells me “an Iraqi reporter at a press conference in Iraq threw his shoes at President Bush! Can you believe that? This shit is crazy.”

There is silence, because I am trying, while I am listening to him, to see what happened on the last play. I move to pick up my remote to rewind the action, but realize it will be a waste of time until I hang up the phone.

“So the president got hit with a shoe.”

“Man,” my buddy yelled, YOU DON”T THROW STUFF AT THE PRESIDENT! He’s the president. He’s a head of state. I’m not talking about people off the street – this guy was a member of the press!”

In the middle of a nice, quiet, relaxing Sunday afternoon, I’m supposed to be worried about George Bush? And after I think about it for a minute, I add Barack Obama to the list – I can’t worry about him all the time either.

I don’t know what triggers my response, but it is sudden and unrestrained. “WE BLEW UP THEIR ENTIRE COUNTRY AND WE EXPECT TO BE GREETED WITH OPEN ARMS? What did we liberate? I’ve been following this closer than you have, I guess.

We blow up everything. We wipe out a big chunk of their economy. We kill people by the thousands.

THEN we show up and tell them we will help them rebuild everything we just blew up. Waste a HUNDRED BILLION DOLLARS – do you hear me – A HUNDRED BILLION DOLLARS doing a half-assed job of that, and now we’re leaving. Oh yeah, and we had no business doing any of this in the first place. I’d be feeling real good about America right now if I was that reporter.”

“But it’s the PRESIDENT, man. The PRESIDENT of the United States. You just can’t do that.”

“Why not? He wasn’t in the United States. That’s their country. We don’t run shit over there.”

“Man, you’re crazy. You DO NOT do that to the president of the United States.”

Our American government plays at a kindergarten-level of diplomacy, a kind of posturing at international relations pomp and circumstance we revere as if we really mean the things we say, while we are very, very likely to be killing someone, somewhere, in secret, at this very second.

Our rhetoric speaks of spreading justice and democracy around the world when what we practice is a doctrine of control of sovereign nations and what we perpetuate is the continued existence of global inequality. If even one tenth of what has gone on in Iraq had happened here, millions of us would have choked to death by now on our own rage at the inhumanity and barbarism of our attackers.

Thank God my buddy didn’t call me back during the Dallas Cowboys-New York Giants game.

I might have had to take MY shoes off – and I wear size 15.

14 December 2008

The "Trickle Up" Effect: Give Blacks Bailout Money

My buddy called me yesterday. I heard a lot of noise in the background.

"Where are you?" I asked. "A party? Sounds like there are a lot of people around you."

"I'm at Lenox Mall. Man," he said, "you know what they need to do with that bailout money? They don't need to give it to the banks and the carmakers. They need to give it to black people."

I started laughing before he could explain, because I knew exactly where he was headed.

"Hey man," he said, "are you listening to me?"

"Dude, I can hear you. I just got this visual-"

"Don't say anything else. Just listen. You know that seven hundred billion dollars? They need to take the all of it - the whole thing - and just give it to us. We'll have the economy back on its feet in no time, because we will spend it all. Every last dollar."

It was kind of hard to argue with his logic. We did have a consumer driven society. And the president has told us over and over, whenever we've had huge problems with the economy stalling, to "get out there and shop."

"Dude, you have absolutely no sense. But it would bring the automakers back to profitability almost overnight."

"Come on, man. You know we'll spend it. This mall is full of brothers shopping right now with no money. I just saw a brother trying to pay for some stuff at Macy's. The cashier repeated "no sir, that one won't go through" each time she swiped one of his credit cards through her register. So the brother pulls out his last credit card. He looks at her and says, 'I know this one will work.' And it did."

Many of us have literally transformed our brains into barcode readers.

Buying stuff at the mall every weekend has become one of our favorite pastimes. Bragging about the stuff we get that has not even been paid for yet is our second favorite pastime. Dreaming about the stuff we're going to get next is our third.

I have several cousins who could be professional shoppers, they spend so much of their free time in clothing stores. One of them, who aspires to be the black Imelda Marcos, seems to have forgotten that the Marcos credit cards were paid with stolen government money. And our own resident shopping diva-in-training gets as excited about "store credit" as you do about your tax refund.

So my buddy might be onto something.

I decided to do the math, just to humor myself. There are approximately forty million black people in the United States. Seven hundred billion divided by forty million is $17,500 per person.

If you assume that half of us are adult aged, and only divide seven hundred billion by twenty million, you get a nice, even $35,000 per person.

Think of all the car downpayments, plasma TV's, roofs, home additions, hairdos, restaurant outings, dental work, home furnishings, and yes, shoes, shoes, and more shoes that would be bought in the next six three months.

Henry Paulson, I know you read this blog on the sly, while you are waiting by the phone for all those banks you gave all our money to call you back with status reports. You might want to run the numbers on my buddies idea.

The "trickle up" effect could be enormous.

12 December 2008

Christmas Tree Surgery Harder Than It Looks

I spent last night performing surgery on our Christmas tree. It's one of those artificial ones, the kind that comes in three pieces and has the Christmas lights already strung around the limbs. It weighs a lot, and is a little unwieldy to handle while you are putting it together, but once you get the three parts assembled all you have to do is plug all the cords for the lights into their assigned receptacles and the whole thing lights right up, ready to be decorated with ornaments. That's how it has worked for the last eight years. This year it's a little more complicated.

I normally don't pay much attention to any of this after I get the thing assembled. S. is the tree decorator. She starts with a basic arrangement of ornaments and adds a few everyday as she remembers where she stashed them away. Some are mementos, given to her by friends. Others are sentimental keepsakes that have been deemed much to valuable to store with the run of the mill ornaments, so their whereabouts are often a mystery that she has to solve, poking in the bottom of closets and the backs of drawers to eventually ferret them out.

But it seems this ritual can't begin until the tree itself is squared away. Which is why last night I found myself tracing individual strands of lights down intricately twisted paths over, under and around the stiff wire branches that were covered with fake pine needles, looking for burned out light bulbs, because two of the eight strands surrounding the Christmas tree won't light this year.

As I took the blackened glass bulbs from out of their plastic chassis and reattached clear bulbs I'd cannibalized from a new strand of icicle lights, I thought longingly of the football game I'd turned on down in the basement.

By the third quarter, the tree was in post op. My fingertips, tender from bending and rebending delicate wires around the tiny plastic pieces, were wrapped around a cold beer as I finally settled in to watch the Chicago Bears host the New Orleans Saints on Thursday Night football.

"I'll bet Barack Obama has NFL Network," I said to myself, because the only way you could see this game was if you were a subscriber, something I was still mad about ever since I'd signed up. "I'll bet Barack doesn't have to mess around with any old Christmas tree. Come to think of it, he's a big Bears fan - he's probably watching the game right now." The whole idea of imagining Obama sitting at home in Chicago, watching the game just like me, brought on a feeling of spiritual kinship so strong that I completely missed the action of the next play.

Then a Coors Light commercial came on.

I was still lost in my "Brown Man is watching the game, just like Obama is watching the game" reverie when I noticed, about a third of the way through the commercial, that there was something about the black woman sitting on the couch that was vaguely reminiscent of Michelle Obama. She didn't look exactly like her, but there was something about her professional demeanor, something about the look in her eyes as she said something to the black guy in the shirt and tie sitting next to her who was holding two Coors Light beers in his hand-

"Wait a minute," I said to myself as I sat up, grabbing the remote to rewind the action. "Since when does Coors have only black people in a commercial?" When I watched it again, from the beginning, I saw that the woman had come home from a hard day at the office, and told her husband, who was sitting on the couch in a still crisp blue dress shirt with his tie loosened, that she "just wanted to vent." He said "so do I. Let's vent together." and disappeared into the kitchen. The wife began to complain about her day, until her husband reappeared with a smile on his face and two cold beers. "We can vent together," he said with smile. The camera cut to his wife. An exasperated look appeared on her face and she left the room.

The camera cut back to the husband, cheerily watching a football game, holding an open beer. he looked up and yelled over his shoulder, "honey, am I going to have to start venting without you?"

A smile came over my face for a second as I thought about just how powerful that simple commercial was, mostly because what it wasn't doing was showing two African Americans slapping each other five, or hand jiving, or yelling "whasssup!" into a phone while they slouched on a couch in sweats.

Then my lips flattened as the real game came back on. They were flattened because I was back to imagining "Brown Man is watching the game, just like Obama is watching the game", only this time, what I imagined was probably more realistic.

"What do you mean you want to watch the game, Barack? We need to start looking at the list of movers, we need to-"

"Baby,baby, I'm just trying to catch the Bears game."

"Mr. Obama - you mean to tell me, as smart as you are, that you can't do this and watch the game at the same time?"

"Baby, I'm not just watching the game. I'm trying to enjoy the game."

"I thought football only came on during the weekend?"

"Barack Obama and I probably have more in common," I said to myself, "than I originally thought." Which can be a good thing, because some times there are things I need to be doing besides watching a football game.

My imagination kicked in again later, after the Bears terrible offense had turned the ball over, and their legendary defense was on the field, swarming all over the Saints offensive line in search of the ballcarrier. Barack Obama was probably wishing he could get the Bears defense to blitz Rod Blagojevich the same way they went after the Saints, dropping him in the political backfield before he could get started trying to cut a deal with the prosecutor.

The game went to overtime. I did not. I woke up a couple of hours later, twisting and turning on the couch to find the remote because I must be lying on it, the way it was changing the channels-

"You fell asleep." I jerked my head and there was S., sitting in the chair next to the couch,remote in her hand, flipping through the channels. She paused on SportsCenter long enough for me to see that the Bears had won, then kept clicking until she saw Anderson Cooper's pained face next to a picture of Chris Dodd speaking before the Senate.

The network switched to another camera that showed most of the Senate chamber, where it looked like the middle of a regular work day, except it was almost 2 AM.

The graphics superimposed over the scene read "Bailout Expected To Fail The Senate".

As the commentator started with the now familiar litany of ills that awaited the economy without the passage of this bailout, S. and I soberly listened to the news.

I thought about the real people whose lives were being messed with because a group of grown men who were still embarrassed about how easily they gave away 700 bllion dollars, 335 billion of which has already disappeared, were too proud to admit that they had been wrong before, and were willing instead to make the auto industry the whipping boy for their own shortcomings over a lousy 15 billion more dollars. They probably weren't worried right now about the lights on their Christmas tree, or the vagaries of the NFL Network.

Christmas tree surgery is harder than it looks. But I took a five dollar strand of lights and got a tree we paid two hundred dollars for to shine like it was new again.

The auto bailout is easier than it looks. 15 billion dollars is just TWO lousy percent of the 700 billion dollars that just got authorized for who really knows what, since all of our banks seem to have forgotten how to actually loan money to new customers.

To all the Congress people who voted against this bill, who are smugly going home to enjoy the holidays in their warm, cozy abodes - I sincerely hope Santa drops 15 tons of coal on top of each one of your houses this Christmas.

11 December 2008

Does Civil Rights Movement Owe King Children?

It just so happens last night that I have just put down Bearing The Cross: Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a book by David Garrow that traces Martin Luther King's involvement in the civil rights movement, to get on the internet for a few minutes before going to bed when I see this headline that says "MLK Papers Pulled From Auction".

Harry Belafonte, it seems, is selling a few papers he has of Martin Luther King Jr. at an auction to raise funds for worthy causes he supports. At least, he was until yesterday, when he withdrew the items from the planned Sotheby's auction because the King Estate objected.

In a further coincidence, it just so happens that I have just gotten through the part of the book that describes the failure of the Albany, Georgia civil rights demonstrations in 1962 . This is the part where Martin Luther King has been hornswaggled into participating in a protest whose underlying currents he does not fully understand.

The SCLC's slogan "jail, no bail" was starting to work a little too well, inspiring marchers across the South to submit to being peacefully arrested as a show of commitment to their cause. SCLC organizers who were involved in the Albany had promised the black citizens who marched that they would be bonded out of jail quickly by outside supporters. Hundreds marched. Hundreds were arrested.

But the SCLC had raised nowhere near the amount of money required to bail them out.

So who did King call upon in New York to help raise money from Northern sympathizers to get these people out of jail?

Harry Belafonte.

Why did Martin Luther King Jr. call on Belafonte? Because he had met the politically active actor during his earlier forays into New York when the movement was just getting started. Martin and his wife Coretta developed a close bond with Belafonte over the years, and the SCLC benefited greatly from his involvement in the movement when they had emergencies like the one in the Albany demonstrations.

Without a nationwide network of hard working, like-minded sympathizers like Belafonte, there might well have been no "I Have A Dream" speech.

From The New York Times

In a telephone interview before Mr. Belafonte withdrew the items for sale, David Redden, vice chairman of Sotheby’s, said that the outline for the anti-Vietnam War speech was written in Mr. Belafonte’s Manhattan apartment.

The notes from Dr. King’s pocket, Mr. Redden said, had originally been given by Mrs. King to Stanley Levinson, an adviser to Dr. King, who left the notes to Mr. Belafonte.

Mr. Redden said that Mrs. King had given the condolence letter to Mr. Belafonte.

Martin the III, Dexter and Bernice King are often in the news here for asserting their rights to their heritage. It appears that the entity the King Estate uses, Intellectual Property Management, is at it again with a "zero tolerance" policy that seems to originated with the King children, and may have even been influenced by their late mother, Coretta.

Thinking about this from the perspective on an ordinary person, I can't really begrudge the King children for making money from their father's image, likeness, and copyrights. In America we sell everything else - why not? Because the reality was that a young, attractive black widow with four kids and practically no money back in 1969 was not going to find a rich Greek shipping tycoon to marry her. She wasn't going to run into a wealthy African prince, or a rich black American businessman either.

Harry Belafonte is not just anybody to the Kings. He lent his celebrity stature, international prestige and powerful political capital to Martin Luther King Jr. until his own public image became fully formed. He lent his apartment in New York to King whenever he was in town, the same apartment where he wrote the anti-Vietnam speech.

Prominent black men and women all across the country hoisted the short man from Atlanta with that big voice on their shoulders and kept him there until the world accepted him as somebody whose voice counted for something important. And Belafonte was there after King's death to give counsel and financial support to their family.

Given Belafonte's activist track record throughout his life, it is much more likely that he would direct any proceeds from the sale of these documents to worthy causes than the King Estate.

I don't think civil rights movement pioneers like Belafonte owe the King children anything. The vigilant protection of their father's rights is one thing, but in this case, a special exception should be made for people like Belafonte.

In my mind, a picture of Martin the III, Dexter and Bernice standing alongside Harry Belafonte with a presentation-sized check made out to worthy cause might be the best photo opportunity these three "owners of the dream" have had in years.

10 December 2008

The Swords Are Being Sharpened

I read the crazier parts of yesterday’s indictment of Governor Rod “Whatever His Name Is” to my buddy when he was driving home and he thought I was pulling his leg. Then he fell back into lawyer mode, his voice dropping an octave to his serious professional tone. “What kind of exposure does Obama have?”

“Were you listening to what I just read? ‘I’m supposed to give Obama’s pick the Senate seat and all I get is appreciation? Fuck him!’ Does that sound like quid pro quo to you?”

“Alright, alright.”

“On the flip side, though, they have been investigating this guy for years, so who knows what else might come out. Your boy Kwame Kilpatrick didn’t go down for anything he did this year – it was the coverup of stuff from the past that did his dumb ass in.”

This governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, must not have watched The Sopranos. Even school kids these days know better than to talk on the phone about stuff they don't want anyone to know when they think it’s being recorded by the coppers.

Reading through the portions of the transcripts from the wiretaps that the prosecutor decided to include in the indictment, I started to fell like I was reading a Bernie Mack monologue. Bernie couldn’t work his favorite expletive as hard as Rod “What’s His Name” did. When I got to the part in the indictment that included profane commentary from the Governor’s wife about the way the Chicago Cubs were being managed, I shook my head as the earthy voices of Tony and Carmella Soprano cursing vociferously at each other came back to me.

The latest issue of Essence magazine had come in yesterday. Barack Obama’s confident eyes were staring at me from the cover of their special issue. The subtitle, “Celebrating the Dream”, was in red letters superimposed over his chest. I looked at it for a minute with a wariness similar to the caution that had crept into my buddy’s voice when he imagined that Obama might be facing some kind of danger.

I hope the phrase “ethics of responsibility” that Obama emphasized to Tom Brokaw in Sunday’s interview with Meet The Press is something that he lives by, because the political swords against him are being sharpened as I write these words.

Despite the worldwide jubilation over this historic election of the first African American president, there are those who have not given a moments pause to destroying Obama.

09 December 2008

The CEO Fallacy

The CEO as a unique corporate asset fallacy ignores the contributions and talents of all the other professional administrators in a large organization. These are the people who operate and maintain the functions of the day to day SG&A (selling, general and administrative) operations.

You know who they are - the people that actually cut the checks, create and execute the contracts, order the raw materials, manage the nuts and bolts of production, coordinate the temporary storage in-house of the finished products, and arrange for their delivery to the customers who pay for these goods when they require them.

This is how Bob Nardelli can go from being a CEO apprentice at GE, a financial conglomerate, to CEO of Home Depot, a hardware retailer, to CEO of Chrysler, an auto manufacturer, without missing a beat.

Ironically, the last CEO of Merrill Lynch, Stanley O'Neal, got his original executive suite experience in the finance side of the auto manufacturing business before coming over to the investment business to count beans.

Believing that there are only a few uniquely qualified individuals that can helm these companies defies all available logic.

The deal to merge Merrill Lynch could only have happened if Merrill survived long enough to consummate it, and if the purchaser had enough cash to tender at closing. Thain didn't raise the the 10 billion from his Rolodex to keep the doors at Merrill open - the U.S. taxpayers, vis a vis Henry Paulson, were the only people willing to risk this kind of scratch on a company that was selling its assets at an 80% discount to face value to try and stay liquid.

Bank of America didn't have the billions on hand it needed to hold up its end of the merger - there was no place on the open market at that time, or even now, that was going to give them the 15 billion they got, other than the TARP fund at the Treasury department.

I don't know if you remember that weekend (in all honesty, I had to refresh my memory of the details by looking it up myself) but Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain went into the weekend thinking he was going to BUY Lehman Brothers at a discount. But Merrill's financial position turned out to be so weak that Paulson had to twist Bank of America's arm to take Merrill before the markets opened the next Monday.

Bank of America could have gotten the same assets for a lot less a week or two later, because the markets were already gearing up to pound Merrill. The $29 a share they paid was a premium over market by $9 a share - something else that looked like it had Paulson's fingerprints on it.

The reason why I am taking the time to write about this is because what I am seeing out here are people who are beginning to do a very human thing - have sympathy for a man who may have a family, who may have committed to obligations that he now can't pay without getting that money. This is a fundamental problem in our society right now, this notion of the CEO as a "super administrator" who doesn't have to have any skin in the game.

Bad decision making and poor performance by their companies should result in harsh outcomes for these guys. When Delta Airlines here in Atlanta went bankrupt, the executives made more money while the company was in bankruptcy than they did when the company was making money.

Mr. Thain might have to sell his home or investment property at a steep discount because nobody is paying full price right now for real estate. His kids may have to go to public schools. He might not be able to meet the margin calls on his portfolio. He might find himself looking at a severely decimated retirement account.

My mother will tell you, "I really can't have a whole lot of sympathy for you if you're down to your last million."

When you face those kinds of real life risks, it sharpens your vision. It also makes you negotiate more salary upfront, and forces you to adopt a less expensive lifestyle or less extensive investment portfolio.

It is unconscionable for me to worry about the problems of this rich man or his buddies. If he doesn't work another day in his life, enough money has gone through his hands to assure him of a lifetime of decent food, shelter, and clothing. If his entire existence has been predicated on never hitting a bump in the road, well, then maybe he shouldn't have been a CEO in the first place.

For what Thain accomplished last year, you or I could have sat at his desk and done the same thing. Reducing headcount or figuring which asset to sell next doesn't really require an MBA. The people who report to CEO's not only do the grunt work - they will recommend a course of action for him to take at no extra charge.

So we ought to get us one of these CEO gigs. I bet we could get through a whole year with only a few stock phrases.

    "So run those options by me again?"

    "Let HR have a look before we go any further with this."

    "Is legal on board?"

    "Shoot that to the CFO so he can scrub the numbers."

    "So the statement I'm going with on the conference call lines up with the press release, right?"

    "I like the way you're thinking here, but we're going to have to review it to see if its headed in the direction we're trying to take the company."

    "I thought I told you I needed to see a 20% cut in operating expenses?"

    "And if I can get the entire board behind this, the adoption of these new policies will strengthen our customer relationships by aligning our core competencies with our mission statement."

    "I'll have to get back to you on that one."

    "We're looking into it."

    "Our initial timeline on this particular milestone may have been a little aggressive, so we're going adjust our forecast on getting this completed from first quarter to third quarter."

    "Due to recent challenges and unforeseen market events, we are going to readjust our earnings expectation for the year slightly downward, but expect to rebound by the second quarter."

Hell - I look good in suit, and can contort my face to whatever level of gravitas is needed to convey the right amount of earnestness for a photo shoot or an interview. Maybe I'll give this CEO thing a whirl.

The worst that can happen is...well, I guess the worst that can happen is if they keep me on, because if they fire me...

...I think I'll take my golden parachute money in small bills.

08 December 2008

Obama Backs Labor In Chicago Layoff Dispute

Barack Obama has done something today that I can't see any other recent president-elect doing. He put out a statement yesterday about the workers who are staging a sit-in in a Chicago window manufacturer where they were recently laid off.

From the Chicago Sun Times

"When it comes to the situation here in Chicago with the workers who are asking for their benefits and payments they have earned, I think they are absolutely right," Obama said Sunday at a news conference announcing his new Veterans Affairs director. “What’s happening to them is reflective of what’s happening across this economy."

"When you have a financial system that is shaky, credit contracts. Businesses large and small start cutting back on their plants and equipment and their workforces. That’s why it’s so important for us to maintain a strong financial system. But it’s also important for us to make sure that the plans and programs that we design aren’t just targeted at maintaining the solvency of banks, but they are designed to get money out the doors and to help people on Main Street. So, number one, I think that these workers, if they have earned their benefits and their pay, then these companies need to follow through on those commitments."

"Number two, I think it is important for us to make sure that, moving forward, any economic plan we put in place helps businesses to meet payroll so we are not seeing these kinds of circumstances again,’’ he said. “Have we done everything that we can to make sure credit is flowing to businesses and to families, and to students who are trying to get loans? And to homeowners who have been making payments on their homes but are still finding their property values so depressed that it becomes very difficult for them to make the mortgage payments?"

"That’s where the rubber hits the road and that’s going to be the central focus of my administration."

There was no legal shuffling, no middle of the road reticence in Obama's "I think they are absolutely right."

Maybe you might think this is of little consequence, but if you watch your national news tonight you will see an ad that General Motors ran today in the trade journal Automotive News, an unsigned open letter entitled "GM's Commitment to the American People" that almost took my breath away when I heard it on cable news at lunch. "While we're still the U.S. sales leader, we acknowledge we have disappointed you," the ad said. "At times we violated your trust by letting our quality fall below industry standards and our designs became lackluster."

If you read Sunday's post here, titled "Obama Says Big Three Exec Pay 'Out Of Line'", then you may recognize the words in the sentences above - they practically mirror Obama's comments to Tom Brokaw about the auto industry's woes.

Make no mistake about it - this will not be "business as usual" in America. Our commander-in-chief sets the tone for the entire nation. I would imagine that Merrill Lynch's CEO would like to take back his demand for his 10 million dollar bonus now.

But back to Republic Windows. It looks like they tried to pull the okie doke on their employees, but they just happened to have the wrong bunch to mess with. Check the facts out for yourself below.

[Compiled from several national news sources]

Workers occupying the Republic Windows & Doors factory slated for closure are vowing to remain in the Chicago plant until they win the $1.5 million in severance and vacation pay owed them by management.

Management claims that it can’t continue operations because its main creditor, Bank of America (BoA), refuses to make any more loans to the company. After workers picketed BoA headquarters December 3, bank officials agreed to sit down with Republic management and UE to discuss the matter at a December 5 meeting arranged by U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill), said UE organizer Leah Fried.

BoA had said that it couldn’t discuss the matter with the union directly without written approval from Republic’s management. But Republic representatives failed to show up at the meeting, and plant managers prepared to close the doors for good — violating the federal WARN Act that requires 60 days notice of a plant closure.

TRACO has announced the sale of its residential vinyl replacement division to Echo Windows LLC. Echo Windows will assume all TRACO residential vinyl manufacturing and sales operations, and will continue manufacturing TRACO’s Sienna Series and Power Two composite vinyl/aluminum windows in the Red Oak, Iowa, facility, which was purchased as part of the agreement.

“The decision to sell our vinyl division was a difficult one for us, as TRACO was founded by my parents in 1943 to service the residential market. But, we are certain that we have chosen the best fit for our long-term residential customers,” says Robert P. Randall, president and chief executive officer of TRACO.

Sharon Gillman, who shares an address with Republic President and CEO Rich Gillman, is listed as an officer of Echo Windows & Doors LLC, which was incorporated in Illinois on Nov. 18, according to secretary of state records.

Neither she nor Rich Gillman could be reached for comment on Sunday. A secretary who answered the phone at the Iowa plant purchased by Echo said Rich Gillman was not in on Sunday, and that she did not know when he would be in.

An "echowindows.com" Internet domain has been registered, but no content has been placed on the site. The administrative contact on the domain registration is Amy Zimmerman—the same name as the vice president of sales and marketing at Republic.

Zimmerman could not be reached for comment on Sunday, but said last week that, "Banks are in the business to make money and at some point they have to make a business decision and that's what this is."

Echo Windows officials told employees at the former TRACO manufacturing plant in Red Oak, Iowa, on Thursday that the workforce would be doubled from the current 50 employees because they have production orders lined up.

On Sunday night, Atty. Gen. Lisa Madigan said her office plans to investigate the sudden closing of Republic Windows & Doors Inc. The move came after the office received requests for help from the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers union, Madigan said in a statement.

Negotiations are set for Monday, December 8. Whatever happens, however, the workers have already sent a message to employers that if they violate workers rights and the law, they can expect a fight.

While I was putting my thoughts together, and looking around for the latest news on this whole thing, the press release below showed up. It looks like the Gillman's public relations firm is going to have to earn their money today - the narrative on this situation has practically been set in stone at this point, without any significant input from Gillman other than the standard blanket denials that larger corporations rely on to help them weather a crisis.

I thought it was interesting that they included their financials - it looks like they are trying to push back on the storyline that they were planning to leave their old employees in the lurch because they were greedy.

CHICAGO--(BUSINESS WIRE)--The management of Republic Windows & Doors today announced the following chronology of the company’s discussions with its lender Bank of America."


■ Informed Bank of America that Republic had a 10/24/08R buyer for the existing Note for ±$3.0M, discount of $1.5M.

■ Offer rejected by Bank of America stating they believed they were “over” collateralized.

■ Bank of America demands plans for “orderly” wind down Republic.


■ Republic presents plan for “orderly” wind down including ceasing manufacturing in January 2009. INFORMS BANK OF AMERICA OF POSSIBLE WARN ACT NOTICE ISSUES AND VACATION PAY.


■ Bank of America rejects plan and demands a shorter wind down period.


■ Republic responds with a new plan to cease operations January 2009.


■ Bank of America rejects plan.


■ Republic requests permission from Bank of America to issue vacation pay to all employees.


■ Bank rejects Company request to make vacation pay.



■ Republic moves to new headquarters on Goose Island.


■ Company reports first loss in history.

■ Loss history

2008/Q3 $5.7mm
2007 $5.5mm
2006 $7.2mm

Results from Previous Management Team

2005 $21.1mm
2004 $5.7mm
2003 $3.7mm

2006 - 2007

■ Richard Gillman, previously a minority shareholder buys out all other partners assumes all debt obligations and adds ±$2,200,000 of his personal funds to add capital to the business; installs new COO from outside of the company.

2006 – 2007

■ Fixed expenses are reduced $18.9 mm, or 47%.


■ Productivity increased ± 30%.


■ Gillman secures new capital.


■ Gillman family forms Echo Windows, LLC.

Despite inheriting a company bloated with overhead and lacking any type of manufacturing discipline and/or productivity, the company makes significant improvements only to encounter and unprecedented decline in new home construction, which led to a decline of company sales to new construction of 80%. This placed the company in the impossible position of not having the ability to further reduce fixed costs, coupled with severe constrictions in the capital debt markets and an unwillingness of the current debt holder to continue funding the operations."

It will be even more interesting to see if they drag a company lawyer out next to explain why they did not comply with the WARN Act, especially when they seemed to be fully cognizant of its requirements.

The Answer Is Two Trillion Dollars

The question is "how much will the economic recovery plan that Barack Obama will propose when he becomes President in January cost?"

My buddy and I have been tossing this idea back and forth lately. Well, actually, I've been the one pushing the idea, and he has gradually started to see how it could make sense.

We have already charged $700 billion to the Credit Card of the USA. Whether we have already drawn down the remaining $350 billion is not a matter of if, but when it will be spent. If $350 billion is only a stopgap measure, designed to gain a little breathing room until somebody in charge figures out what to do, another $350 billion on top of that won't go much farther.

From what we have seen so far from Mr. Obama, he does not lack the capacity to think big. It seems that the only way he looks at things is on a gargantuan, comprehensive, all-inclusive scale. So I've been giving my buddy food for thought on a regular basis the last month or so with this idea of a two trillion dollar "economic realignment" plan. This two trillion, in my mind, needs to be on top of the money that has already been spent trying to stem the tide of this recession that is threatening to become a depression.

It is a number that should take your breath away.

But what we are doing right now - spending a 100 billion here, loaning 25 billion there - is the equivalent of fixing a car that has four flat tires by replacing one tire at a time. Until all the tires are replaced or repaired, the car isn't going to go very far.

I'm no economist. I don't crunch numbers of this size for a living. But if you look at the things Obama says he will address in his plan - bridge and highway projects, green job retraining, energy efficiency upgrades in government and school buildings, broadband internet access for all school children, and the creation of 2.5 million jobs through FDR style public works projects - you don't have to be an economist or a number cruncher to know that these things will cost a boatload of money.

We are already on the hook for almost 11 trillion dollars in debt. Most of it was accumulated by doing the same thing we are doing now - funding Band-Aid solutions with just enough money to get back to doing the same thing that caused the problem in the first place.

I haven't read John Talbott's "Obamanomics" yet, but the things he focuses on about Obama in his book align almost perfectly with the stated goals of Obama's economic recovery plan, which should indicate how much of a commitment Obama has made to consistently return to the same core principles that anchor his beliefs about America and about the role of government.

Obamanomics blurb from Amazon.com

The change that Talbott sees from a Barack Obama presidency is one based on justice and cooperation, principles that have not held sway in Washington, DC for a very long time. Obamanomics, infused with Obama’s speeches, campaign policy statements, and other writings, describes not just a government but a NATION acting according to democratic principles to reform lobbying, banking, and housing as well as restore economic growth, address the healthcare system, improve education, and find solutions to our aging population and declining energy sources.

So I will repeat - I think the answer to the question "how much will the economic recovery plan that Barack Obama will propose when he becomes President in January cost?" needs to be "two trillion dollars".

07 December 2008

Obama Says Big Three Exec Pay "Out Of Line"

When executives in any industry start leaping tall buildings in a single bound, then I'll be the first to back their Superman sized pay packages. Everyone of these guys claims he is indispensable, until the next guy shows up, who proceeds to trumpet the same thing.

Instead of worrying so much about "legacy costs", we need to think a lot harder about whether or not we can afford to pay sums so exorbitant they border on the obscene for "legacy mindsets".

Barack Obama and I seem to see eye to eye on this.

There are quotes on this floating around the internet, but I don't think these tidbits adequately reflect the tone of the conversation. I've taken the time to transcribe a part of the interview Obama had with Tom Brokaw on NBC's Meet The Press so you can see for yourself, unfiltered, exactly how your next president thinks:

[The following is from the video above beginning at the 5:03 mark]

Tom Brokaw: But under that organization, or any organization that you settle on, should the current management get to stay in their jobs?

Barack Obama: Here's where I'll, I'll say, that it may not be the same for all the companies. But what I think we need to put an end to is the "head in the sand" approach to the auto industry that has been prevalent for decades now.

I think, in fairness, you have seen some progress made incrementally in many of these companies. They have been building better cars now than they were 10 or 15 or 20 years ago. They are making some investments in the kind of green technologies and the new batteries that will allow us to create plug-in hybrids.

What we haven't seen is a sense of urgency and the willingness to make tough decisions, and what we still see are executive compensation packages for the auto industry that are out of line compared to their competitors, their Japanese competitors who are doing a lot better.

Now, its not unique to the auto industry. We've seen that across the board. Certainly we saw it on Wall Street.

And part of what I'm hoping to introduce, as the next president, is a new ethic of responsibility, where we say, that if you're laying off workers, the least you could do when you're making 25 million dollars a year is give up some of your compensation and some of your bonuses. Figure out ways in which workers maybe have to take a haircut but they can still keep their jobs, they can still keep their healthcare, they can still stay in their homes.

That kind of notion of shared benefits and burdens is something that I think has been lost for too long and is something I'd like to see restored.

The thing I like best about this outsider president-elect, who has had to put the blinders on in order to look past the distractions of life and get where he is today, is his lack of allegiance to political dogma and his utter and complete conviction to preserving the dignity and humanity of his citizens.

05 December 2008

Why Big Three Push $70 Per Hour Wage Fallacy

I was watching the news the other night when I heard Brian Williams read off of his teleprompter "retailers fear lower consumer spending will translate into sharply reduced 4th quarter earnings." This led into a two minute report from a mall somewhere about how sluggish holiday sales have been after Black Friday. Then a couple of commercials came on.

After the break, Williams then proceeded to read this tidbit off of his teleprompter, without a trace of irony - "reports indicate that the savings rate of the average American is lower than it has been at any time in the last thirty years" - nor a change in tone or cadence from his earlier pronouncement that consumers had to "start spending more" if retailers had any hope of staying in the black this year.

"Damn," I said to S., "looks like we just can't win - we should be saving and spending at the same time. No wonder people are losing their minds."

I was about to leave the room, reminded by these back to back statements why I didn't watch the news, when they switched to a story about the bailout talks on Capitol Hill between Congress and the Big Three automakers. The story was led by a snapshot of an assembly line overlaid with graphics that read "U.S. Autoworkers - $70/hour average wages".

I had to clench my teeth to keep from howling manically in outrage. After a couple of deep breaths, I said to S. "it's this kind of blatant bullshit reporting that gets me hot. Over $25 of that figure are costs that the corporations agreed to pay for benefits to old employees, costs that do not benefit the person who is working at all. Moreover, these companies have already set aside enough money to cover most of this cost. Do the news people just take the press packets and regurgitate them these days?"

EXCERPT from "Assembly Line" by Jonathan Cohn in The New Republic

According to Kristin Dziczek of the Center for Automative Research--who was my primary source for the figures you are about to read--average wages for workers at Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors were just $28 per hour as of 2007. That works out to a little less than $60,000 a year in gross income--hardly outrageous, particularly when you consider the physical demands of automobile assembly work and the skills most workers must acquire over the course of their careers.

More important, and contrary to what you may have heard, the wages aren't that much bigger than what Honda, Toyota, and other foreign manufacturers pay employees in their U.S. factories. While we can't be sure precisely how much those workers make, because the companies don't make the information public, the best estimates suggests the corresponding 2007 figure for these "transplants"--as the foreign-owned factories are known--was somewhere between $20 and $26 per hour, and most likely around $24 or $25. That would put average worker's annual salary at $52,000 a year.

I couldn't watch anymore.

Why are the corporate spin doctors pushing this $70 an hour narrative so hard? Because they know what I know - that if they don't get the airwaves filled with half truths first, someone might decide to start delving into the really juicy stories, the ones that involve the details of executive compensation packages.

Think about it - you've got the three CEO's from the automakers on TV all week - doesn't it strike you as odd that not one in-depth report on the details of their compensation arrangements has been broadcast by the major news outlets? That not one executive compensation specialist has been featured, with accompanying graphics that show U.S. auto execs incomes as compared to, say, the Japanese auto execs?

These are the real legacy costs, the ones that will get paid even if the ship sinks.

A few tidbits, gleaned from the Too Much Online, the website of the Council on International and Public Affairs, might give you a better sense of perspective on all this.

In the fiscal year that ended in March 2007, Toyota’s top 32 executives — a group that included CEO Katsuaki Watanabe — together pulled in $7.8 million in bonuses on top of salaries of $12.1 million. For the comparable period, one single GM exec, CEO Rick Wagoner, raked in $10.2 million.

Then again, it probably takes a lot more effort, ingenuity and know how to consistently lose market share, reduce profitability, and ignore consumer desire than it does to run a company successfully.

Back in 1984, to discourage the then-emerging golden parachute phenomenon, Congress stuck executives with a 20 percent tax penalty on any “change of control” termination pay that exceeded over three times an executive’s average pay for the previous five years.

These taxes can mount up quickly.

The really “gross” part: Most of these executives, explains this new RiskMetrics report, will not have to pay a penny of income tax on their severance windfalls. Their companies will pay the taxes for them.

I don't know if the same definition of wealth redistribution applies to the kind of free market capitalism to which the American captains of industry subscribe. But if my math serves me correctly, when a collective like a corporation, that is owned by millions of shareholders, including many of the people it employs, reduces the earnings of the collective to pay for the tax burden of an individual executive, that is an example of the redistribution of wealth that is so clear cut it could be used to illustrate a high school economics textbook.

The bailout legislation that Congress passed earlier this fall barely puts a dent into any of this. Under the bailout, execs whose companies get gobbled can still collect up to three times their recent average annual pay in severance — and, if their company “grosses up,” not have to worry about paying taxes on any of it.

Can you recall, just off the top of your head, anybody bailout executives other than the Big Three CEO's who have been asked to alter in any way their employment agreements with their "on the brink of failure" companies, the ones that couldn't go on another month without a quick multibillion dollar rescue?

I couldn't think of any either.

Corporate boards are rushing this fall to change how they measure executive “performance” — and the new yardsticks they’re adopting let execs claim they’re “performing” fine even if a company’s share price and profits are shrinking.
“With the stock market in tatters,” reports Financial Week, companies are “shunning such traditional incentive-pay factors as earnings per share.”
Among the new CEO performance yardsticks: easily manipulable measures like “customer satisfaction” or progress on meeting “environmental” standards.

I joked yesterday that "peeing straight" must be one of the new corporate metrics, because that's the only target these guys could possibly have been hitting. With performance yardsticks like "customer satisfaction" being considered, I guess "accurate waste elimination" can't be too far down on the list.

Send In The Clowns

This isn’t a lame duck session, this is a damn clown show. The Treasury Secretary and President Bush team up to scare Congress into handing out $350 BILLION dollars to shore up/bailout/subsidize the financial sector, and now the son of a biscuit-eater bankers won’t return a phone call – unless they need more money.

The Three Horsemen of the Apocalypse ride in from Detroit, first in their spit shined corporate jets, then again, after being rebuffed the first time, with their hats in hand, long faced and remorseful, as if their sad features had been painted on by the people who do the makeup for the Ringling Brothers circus, all this for 24, no, scratch that, 34 BILLION dollars to keep ALL of their companies afloat.

Is this a joke? Is Harry Reid serious? Has Nancy Pelosi lost her mind?

These pimpernickels are really wasting time being sanctimonious about a measly 34 BILLION dollars when they just flushed 350 BILLION dollars down the toilet - I mean, loaned it to - oops, I mean "invested" in such creditworthy entities as AIG, Washington Mutual, and Countrywide?

The Wall Street bankers STILL won’t call anybody in the government back, have not cut ONE dollar from their bonus plans, which apparently reward their executives for peeing straight without hitting the toilet, since that’s the only target they could have possibly hit in the last twelve months, and these cartoon characters we have clogging up the halls of Congress are sweating the Three Horsemen over this 34 BILLION like we’ve never thrown good money after bad before.

We will lose more money in AIG alone than the automakers need, even if you double the 34 BILLION to a nice, round 70 BILLION that is more likely to be the final tab, but these elected nincompoops, who claim to represent us, are prancing around the Capitol Rotunda as if they are proctors at an SAT exam.

Half of Congress can’t spell “derivative” - most of Congress have no idea how to read the arcane minutia that garnishes a Wall Street balance sheet. These are the Keystone Cops who are demanding that Barack Obama do something NOW, as if he is John Shaft instead of the president-elect.

And we wonder why the kids seem to be schizophrenic these days? It’s amazing more of them aren’t prescribed mind-altering psychiatric drugs, with adults who claim to be leaders acting like this.

Don't get your panties in a wad, Barney - pun intended. I'm sure you guys will come to your senses and realize that the money set aside for more fuel efficient cars can be reallocated to this crisis. In case you don't know how to do this, you can feel free to call any of your constituents who had to "reallocate" money earmarked for home improvements or savings accounts when gas was over $4.00 a gallon.

Hopefully these next 46 days will be long enough for you guys to realize that the Barack Obama you elected didn't come with a cape or super powers.